Interview: Jin Xing

China's best known dancer and first public transgender woman talks to Time Out

The path to a dance career usually involves early morning practice sessions, countless injuries and copious amounts of cigarettes. Jin Xing’s journey to international renown, however, meant self-imposed starvation, an escape from the army and a gender reassignment operation. But Jin is always on the road less travelled. China’s first public transgender woman became her nation’s best-known dancer and the first choreographer to start an independent troupe. The company, Jin Xing Dance Theatre (JXDT) is now more than ten years old.

Jin was only six (and a boy) when to her, footlights became tractor beams. After seeing the revolutionary ballet The White Haired Girl, she danced around her bedroom with a pillowcase on her head. ‘I didn’t know if I would be good at singing or dancing; it was the stage,’ she enthuses. ‘I loved the attention.’ At age nine, the People’s Liberation Army recruited her for their dance troupe; she went on a hunger strike to convince her reluctant parents. The undersized child struggled with enormous guns and live grenades, writing self-criticisms for her many failures. Dancing was not much easier; besides fending off the advances of a predatory male teacher, Jin and her classmates were tied in vertical splits to posts until their ligaments ripped – the screams were like ‘animals being butchered.’

Although she was the PLA’s star dancer, the teenage Jin still had to blackmail officials (informing on the would-be paedophile) to study in Guangdong. She earned a scholarship to study in the US, and had to go AWOL to use it. ‘Some wonderful person in the police station gave me an under-the-table stamp,’ she says. ‘That changed my life completely.’ After New York she danced in Europe, then came back to China. ‘After three continents,’ I knew the kind of modern dancer I wanted to be,’ she says.

Even more significantly, she knew the kind of person she wanted to be – female. And it had to happen at home. ‘The first time my mother gave me life was in China,’ she says. ‘The second time I give myself life, it’s Chinese.’ However, a surgical mishap left her with a partially paralysed leg and months of painful rehabilitation, with the distinct possibility of losing all she had struggled for. ‘If I had known the risk, I never would have done the surgery,’ she says. ‘But it was a sign. You’re asking for a huge present from life – do you deserve it? If it were easy, anyone could do it,’ she continues. ‘It was a test. I passed. I deserve it.’

Although changing genders is relatively accepted in China (seen as a design flaw, not a behavioural issue), no one but Jin ever talked about it. This initially alienated audiences, critics and even some friends, but Jin took it in her stride. ‘I went from being the best male dancer to the best female dancer,’ she says. ‘If society can accept it, that’s great. Otherwise, they can take their time.’ Jin claims that giving people the freedom to criticise helps reinforce her decision. ‘Some nasty Chinese people say, “Do I call you Mr or Miss?” I say, “Whatever you want, it’s not my problem.”’

These days, such controversy is all but a memory; beyond being a journalist’s dream, Jin is a serious artist. As JXDT enters its second decade, its founder reflects, ‘we’re the first of only a few independent performing groups in China running in front of the system. I had a hundred reasons to stop the company, but I had the firm belief that it adds something special to China.’

Jin plans to establish an arts centre and to carry on educating the public about modern dance; in the meantime, she has earned the right to revel in her success. ‘I realise how daring and how challenging my company has been to the cultural establishment,’ she says. ‘My team and I were on a “mission impossible” and we did it!’

This interview was originally published in Time Out Shanghai's February 2010 issue.